Roundtable on Geek Culture

Stefan Dziemianowicz

Methinks the Geeks doth protest too much. What oppression there is of comic book geeks and Star Trek geeks–to name but two subcultures–tends to be in the media rather than in the public at large. And it tends to be directed at that kind of behavior that makes more temperate fans cringe. The phenomenal success of The Avengers and the Star Trek franchise show that those “properties” appeal to a mass culture that extends way beyond geekdom. There will always be aspects of fandom that will invite derision and oppression, but that’s probably true of any subculture.

Cat Rambo

I presume folks have seen the Felicia Day/The Guild music video for “I’m the One That’s Cool”, which has been hailed as a “geek anthem,” and which (imo) explains a lot of why “geek culture” has become mainstream. Marketers have made it a point of identification for everyone who was “different” in high school (aka everyone, pretty much).

A recent Forbes editorial, “Dear Fake Geek Girls: Please Go Away” made me uneasy in its gendered-defense of geekdom, but does talk about how “geek” has been grabbed by the marketers and points towards why I think Jeffrey’s right when he talks about it being trumped up bullshit.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

In his recent book As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality, Michael Saler addresses the embrace of fantasy and fantastic worlds by the culture at large and has this to say about the so-called minority of geekdom:

“But the habits of this minority have arguably become those of the majority in the West: we are all geeks now. Fantasy, a capacious category that subsumes subgenres such as science fiction and the supernatural, has blossomed from a niche interest to become one of the most popular and lucrative fields in contemporary entertainment.”

If we’re ALL geeks, then no one is a geek.

Siobhan Carroll

As opposed to all those years where monster movies dominated the cinema? And gothic novels dominated the bookshelves? And French courtiers told each other prettified versions of the fairy tales told by peasants?

Yes, the behemoth called “popular culture” has changed over time. But I can’t think of an era in which speculative fiction has been completely excluded from it.

Theodora Goss

I agree with Siobhan: At least in British lit, popular culture has had plenty of fantasy and horror in it at least since the mid-1700s, when the Gothic became a cultural phenomenon. Most of it didn’t survive. (We don’t read Varney the Vampire anymore unless we’re scholars making our painful way through its turgid pages.) It’s literary fiction that excluded the fantastic, and is now grudgingly opening itself up to it. I guess I just don’t understand the notion that comic books were the province of some sort of geeky outsider class? To me, they always seemed part of mainstream popular culture. I mean, the old Batman and Superman shows were on network TV. In my generation, everyone knew who these figures were.

It’s really hard to see something like the Avengers franchise, or any of the SF summer movies, as the triumph of some sort of outsider group.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

I can’t speak to the matter of the fairy tales, but even though they were popular in their time, monster movies were dismissed by the culture at large as drive-in fodder for uncritical teenagers, and Gothic novels were looked down on as lamentable exercises in literary hackwork. The way the culture has changed–in the case of The Avengers and films of its ilk–is that comic books are no longer derided as crap for developmentally arrested juveniles. They have been embraced as legitimate forms of popular culture with more than just a geeky niche interest. They’ll probably never be accepted as “high culture”–but when you begin hearing Lynd Ward canonized in prestigious literary review venues as the godfather of the graphic novel for his series of woodcut novels that were recently enshrined in the Library of America, who knows?

Siobhan Carroll

hen the original Superman movie came out, was it derided as crap for developmentally-arrested juveniles? Somehow I think not.

Let’s face it: a lot of critical eye-rolling at comic book movies has been perfectly justified. The reason the critical reception for movies and graphic novels has got warmer is because, frankly, the movies and graphic novels have gotten better.

Or to be more precise: post-Maus/DK Returns/Watchmen/Sandman comic books were aimed more at adult than child audiences. So guess what? Critics felt better about adults reading comic books!

As for movies: If all the comic book films released in the last 10 years were like the Fantastic Four, I think there’d be a lot more critical eye-rolling at the stupider moments of The Avengers.

Most of the early reviews for HBO’s Game of Thrones derided fantasy as crap for developmentally-arrested juveniles. In short, I don’t think culture has changed that much.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

Point taken, Siobhan.

Another thing to keep in mind as we ponder the de-geeking of geek cultural artifacts: The summertime blockbuster film has become virtually synonymous with works of fantasy, science fiction, and comics that were once were of interest primarily to niche or fan groups. Given the amount of money Hollywood has to spend on these films to make them succeed, it behooves them to make whatever effort they can to reach the broadest possible audience. That ranges from everything including getting name actors/actresses and directors to do the movies to merchandizing the hell out of them to get products knocked off from them into Walmart and MacDonalds. Hollywood has done a pretty good job of convincing the broader culture that there’s no stigma to liking superheroes or science fiction spectacles.

Cat Rambo

Addendum: just found this via Facebook ad.

When Williams Sonoma is selling a Marvel bake set, I seriously question how marginalized geek culture really is.

Paul Witcover

One problem surely lies in the fact that part of geek culture is the wearing of marginalization as a badge of honor. When the market snaps up so many geek signifiers and offers them for sale to anyone as fashion accessories, geeks are apt to feel whiplashed, abused, and defensive. Without marginalization, and the perception of the disdain or contempt of the majority, what’s left?

Karen Burnham

Didn’t the punk rock movement suffer a similar move, going from being truly marginalized to widely commercialized?

Paul Witcover

Exactly, Karen. It’s the fate of all subcultures to feed the market sooner or later.

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